If you thought Olivia Pope couldn’t get any more interesting, or that Scandal couldn’t get any crazier, after Thursday night’s blissfully wild premiere of ABC’s Frankenstein soap-opera-political-thriller-procedural we have two beautiful words for you.
After all, over the past two seasons of Scandal, we thought we’d seen everything possible obstacle thrown at Kerry Washington’s flawless gladiator—hiding an affair with the president, being the target of an assassination attempt, burying the secrets of Washington’s most powerful players—and then deflect them all with her impeccably tailored Gucci armor. So God bless Shonda Rhimes and her gloriously insane stable of writer apostles for gifting us with the one thing that Olivia may not be able to “handle”: her daddy issues.
The last we saw of Olivia Pope, so painfully long ago, she ended her affair with the president, was publicly named as his mistress, and escorted into a limo with the man who we were led to believe ordered her assassination and uttered last TV season’s most shocking line: “Dad?”
When Season 3 picks up, the media is at peak Monica Lewinsky obsession with Olivia the Mistress, and Olivia is at peak disbelief at seeing her father staring back at her from the other side of the limo.
Scandal has always lived in the gray area between outlandish histrionics and gutting groundedness, the intersection of Rhimes’s rule of writing in which every speech is crafted to be delivered From the Mountaintop and her cast’s ability to find the relatable humanity in the melodrama. The first few scenes between Olivia and her father, Rowan—who, before being introduced as Daddy Pope, was only known to us as the lethal B-613 commander—nail that balance.
The lines given to Rowan as he belittles his daughter for committing the foolish mistake of an affair with the president are almost Shakespearean in their bombast and blood-line blood-lust. And Joe Morton as Rowan roars each line with all of the ferocity—and then some—they require.
“You are getting on that plane come hell or high water,” he tells Olivia, trying to convince her that her only option as America’s Most Hated Woman is to erase her identity and flee. “And to be clear, I am the hell. And the high water.” (To say that his lines in this scene are over-the-top would imply that you can even see the “top” anymore from how high they are over it. But they are so entertainingly juicy.)
And when Kerry Washington digs into Olivia’s feistiness for her response to the threat, the result is soap opera in the genre’s highest form. “The White House will destroy you,” Rowan warns, when Olivia decides not to escape and to face the wrath of the media. “That’s what Mommy used to tell me about you,” she retorts.
Scandal is the kind of show that made its entire reputation on the fact that it zips through every plot development like a bullet train. The whip-cracking sound as the train speeds by nearly deafens you, so unexpected it briefly stops your heart, before moving on to the next destination—and storyline. So if you thought that these whole questions of “who named Olivia as the president’s mistress?” and “how will she survive the bad press?” were going to last the entire season, or at least half of it, you are—and please don’t take this the wrong way—a fool.
It’s the kind of television show that when taking notes of the different plot points, I find myself writing 40 percent of the details ALL IN CAPS BECAUSE THEY ARE SO OUTLANDISH and often ending quotes I transcribe with a ridiculous series of punctuation (!!!???!!!). When Olivia’s staff—who, if you need a reminder, call themselves “Gladiators,” finds out that their boss was named as the mistress, they have a crisis of conscience—do they help her? Harrison rallies the troops, asking the team, “Are we Gladiators, or are we bitches?” That one had eight exclamation points. Easily, it’s the best line of the fall TV season.
The rest of the episode found everyone in gladiator mode, trying to find out who leaked Olivia’s name and how to keep the debacle from destroying President Grant’s administration. Roughly halfway through the episode, Olivia and Fitz (do I need to tell you that’s what we call President Grant?) meet in a secret bunker to figure out what they’re going to do. In a twist so juicy it can only be called succulent, she also brings in Fitz’s wife, Mellie, for the three of them to hash out a plan for addressing the press and sweeping this under the rug.
Let’s take this moment to bow down to the Bellamy Young’s Lady Macbeth-on-crack performance as Mellie Grant. In that bunker scene, she undulates between doe-eyed, betrayed wife, and manipulative, hissing viper with startling dexterity, doling out threats in a voice so deep and unsettling you nearly whimper at home watching.
Mellie—owed greatly to Young’s delivery—is the epitome of the moral ambiguity that creates the dangerous high you feel while watching Scandal, which makes it so addicting. Every character, Olivia included, is a despicable, morally bankrupt, pathetic excuse for a human being. But, my God, do we love them and root for each and every one to succeed. As each and every one is, at any moment, at odds with another, it makes for a brilliant, if emotionally conflicting, viewing experience.
There’s Cyrus, who is at this point a walking and talking stress ulcer, plotting to throw Olivia under the bus, while he’s on the phone with her telling her how he has her back. There are the Gladiators, who are portrayed as a Salvation Army of do-gooders coming in to save the day. It’s only later that you realize they saved the day by throwing someone else under the bus Olivia just escaped from. And then there’s Olivia, who you’re supposed to be invested in coming out of this scandal with her white power suit still immaculately clean, but who is the one who really should have the most dirtied conscience of them all.
As is the Scandal way, we find out who leaked Olivia’s name by the end of the episode, and we find out how her Gladiators managed to handle it. On the off-chance that you made it this far into this review without finding out, we won’t spoil either point here, because the reveals are that good—like gasp so loud the nearest person runs in the room frantically asking if you’re alright good.
The last scenes seem to set in motion what may be this year’s equivalent to last season’s election-rigging controversy—the scandal that will provide the guiding throughline to the otherwise blissfully chaotic narrative—when Rowan kidnaps Cyrus and reveals that Fitz may have been lying about his military background.
Fans and critics may have been worried that, after breaking out in Season 2 with such a brilliant, out-of-its-mind run of episodes, Scandal could still keep the momentum going. After Thursday’s premiere, there’s never been a better time to quote Olivia Pope. “It’s handled.”